‘Tis the season for thinking about sagging middles, and I’m not just talking about the end result of an overdose of biscotti, peanut butter balls and double chocolate brownies. Though I never believed the sagging middle problem applied to my story, I realize now (again, ever and always) that I was foolish. Though I thought my story zinged and zanged along quite well enough in outline form, NaNo showed me that I had little other than an arc of emotional growth hanging the middle section of one of my two main storylines together. And guess what? That emotional growth arc grinds the pace of that storyline down to unacceptable levels; it has become the equivalent of story fat.
So. I’m on a mission to tone my story’s middle up over the next few weeks, knowing full well that middle toning can be a tricky business when you’re firm on how the beginning and ending story parts play out; whatever you decide to add can’t inadvertently detract from the tale or you’ll just be inviting a new band of pacing problems.
Here are a few of the tricks I’m going to road test:
1. Broaden Story Conflict. It’s important to drill deep to find fresh conflict for characters in the middle of the story, creating new and more challenging obstacles for the hero to leap over in a not-so-single bound. Conflict can exist between characters, obviously, but it’s also important to develop conflict within the protagonist. For example (and I’m not in any way drawing from personal experience here), does he want to eat the leftover pecan pie with a side of vanilla ice cream and lose weight too? These two goals are not in sync, but you can show just how much your protagonist wants each of these goals in separate sequences. Brainstorm all manner of conflict. What will happen if a beloved secondary character suddenly appears untrustworthy? What if there’s a disaster–a fire, earthquake, flood? How might these twists enrich plot without torquing the story off course?
2. Re-Examine your One-Line. What’s a one-line? It’s the one line you can deliver when someone asks you the dreaded question: What’s your book about, anyway? Think through all of the events that can happen as you develop your one-line, then think some more. Pursue the scenes that make you most anxious to get to the keyboard.
3. Increase the Stakes. The middle of the story is a great time to amp up the importance of the protagonist’s goal. Taking a page out of Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel, ask yourself some stretching questions: What might make her quest more critical? What horrible things could happen if she fails? Is reaching the goal worth her life or someone else’s? How far can the story be pushed without sacrificing credibility?
4. Add a Ticking Clock. I’ve read about this plot device plenty of times, but I hadn’t really thought of a good way to work it into my storyline. Now I’m considering a few possibilities and may be reaching for this tried-and-true classic.
5. Ramp Up to an Authentic Ending. Most stories end showing some form of character growth for the protagonist. Don’t let your character go from a to z without showing us a little c and h, some n, and a touch of q and v along the way. Make it possible for your character to change the way you need for him to through these micro steps. Change is hard. (Anyone who is forced to throw away perfectly good rum balls just because the doctor said it would be a good idea can attest to this.) Make your characters’ changes believable by showing critical points throughout the journey.
6. Strike Gold in Underdeveloped Mines. I’m taking a page out of Peter Jackson’s book and looking for areas in the story that can become scene expanders. For example, in Fellowship of the Ring, Jackson decided to create a huge tension-filled scene as the main characters try to escape orcs and worse. Though the screenplay never read more than something simple like, “characters rush to bridge to escape balrog,” Jackson added crumbling grounds in the too-deep mine, asked the characters to make life-risking leaps over an abyss, added arrow fire and even a teetering stair for one of the most edge-of-seat scenes in the flick. What a smart guy.
7. Mess with Point of View. Writing a scene from within another character’s head can be a great exercise in discovery. Suddenly your protagonist looks very different and you see room for new conflict or surprises. I have some fun possibilities in mind with this idea.
8. Consider Subplots. Though I’m not crazy about adding yet another layer of story to my already twisty wip, maybe I can expand an existing subplot in a smart way, tying it into the main plot. Or perhaps I need a new character. Someone who can be the face of a coming conflict that I can’t reveal entirely just yet. Must ponder…
9. Twist it up. Every story needs surprises. What doesn’t your protagonist know that you can surprise the reader with at this point? Maybe there’s a skeleton in her closet that you haven’t invented yet. Heehee.
10. Respect the Good Fat. Though I may trim some of my “heavy” emotional storyline down, I’m not going to do liposuction on it. After all, just as in life, not all fat is bad and some is downright essential for good (story) health. Which is why I refuse to part with my leftover Peppermint Bark. Humph.
Good luck to all fighting back sagging middles in the New Year. Write on!